The Goat, the City, the Embassy & Other Poems
Mildred Kiconco Barya
The Goat, the City, the Embassy
It terrifies me to drive in Kampala city after being away for many years. Few traffic lights work, and when they don’t, it’s chaos. We share the potholed roads with goats, chickens, boda-bodas, pedestrians, buses, and public taxis springing from any direction. The most aggressive charge forth. I’m amazed road accidents aren’t frequent. Now and again, you’ll hear of a bus that crashed going upcountry, but rarely in the city. To boost my confidence, my sister says I must be pushy if I’m to move from point A to B. Otherwise, I’ll be stuck in one spot and irritate those behind me or trying to get ahead.
When it’s time for my visa appointment at the American Embassy, I ask my sister to give me a ride. On our way we get trapped in a jam – a thicket of motorbikes and taxis honking, turning their engines on and off, spewing black smoke. This is the work of Japan, selling old and used cars to dreamers who’d never have thought of themselves in a position to own cars. I want to say something about the environment, the pollution, but then to my left, I see a woman on a boda-boda hugging a black goat with a sack of potatoes tied behind her. I lower the window, and, without looking away, fish for my phone in the bowels of my large handbag. The cars start to move, the engines’ roar scares the goat. It leaps out of the woman’s embrace and lands on our hood. “This is why I love this city!” I clap ecstatically. Quickly, I pour the contents of my bag onto my lap and grab the phone to take a picture, but by then, the goat, the woman, and all the vehicles ahead of us have moved on, and behind us, folks are honking thunderously.
To Bury a Fire
We kept a fire that outlived our children. It boiled our water, cooked our food, and kept us warm. After dinner, before we slept, we collected black wattle logs, which were good at retaining flames in their heartwood. I learned to push a log beneath hot coal and ash, topped with cold ash to prevent the log from burning all the way. Another method was to scoop hot coal and ash to one side and place a small log in the hollow, then heap the coal back onto the log. It would smoulder through the night. By morning, a portion of the log would be glowing. Add scraps of dried grass and sticks, and the fire would roar to life.
Pieces of wood retained heat for many moons. We thanked God for little things – the gift of breath to blow on a dying fire and see it rising, catching wood again. Stoking fires with the bellows of our mouths. Children were born and grew up and married. More children from the marriage grew up and got their own children who got other children, and the fires burned bright and steady. We told the children who had become men and women how so and so’s fires were older than them. They aspired to grow as old as the oldest fires.
We lived in the valleys and prepared dinner around six o’clock when we came down the hills where we cultivated crops. We ground millet and sorghum on the grindstone for bread and porridge. We shelled peas, corn, and beans. When there was a rabbit or goat, Papa skinned it. Mother cleaned and cut up the meat, sweet potatoes, and squashes. My brothers split wood. We all took turns cooking food and sitting around the fire recounting the day’s events. Our elders smoked pipes and told us stories. Narrating a good story that brought laughter across the hills and valleys produced admiration and sometimes envy. Our storytellers thrived on echoes of joy that made us happy. But the most important thing when we were growing up was to know how to rekindle a fire.
Between Wake and Sleep in the Heart of the City That Delights and Shatters
A short distance from where I stand is a humongous mall that’s eaten up all the space. The small buildings around it look cramped and uneasy, as if they’re struggling to breathe. I stare at this city that’s running out of room, constantly changing – growing, declining, evolving, and dissolving. It’s the way it will always be, for better or worse. Would you believe among the many terrors that plagued my life in the past is Novinophobia – the fear of running out of wine? This city takes up space. It swallows everything – buzzing motorcade, ambulances, and a throng of pedestrians going in and out of the mall. And like love, it endures. I like being here reliving old and new memories. The past and present – a recurring future. Mixed company!
The city never closes. By nightfall, I’m surrounded by a silence that hums and makes me tender, feeling affection for ghosted loves in the nook of my elbows. Much as there’s reason to fear, I need not worry about boundaries, limitations, or even death – trappings of my imagination’s worst scenarios.
The mind opens, severs, reopens. I can see that now as I stand on this street that once housed my favourite cafe. I have no idea where it moved to. Perhaps just folded. In its former place is the ugliest fuel station. Diesel fumes and the red dust of this badly patched city assault my nostrils as if to say, We are here! Doing all right. We mingle. We are not a fiction. We are true. We are expansive and not deserters. We do not run out. Why not rejoice in the choice to jump, to taste chances, to sit at the table and break bread for a little while before disappearing into the dawn? What shatters is also what delights and expands the heart. I’ll cross the road to the carpentry workshop, sit and hold hands. Estranged hands. Until the strangeness of what haunts vanishes.
Roosters, Taxi, and Murakami
Going downtown in a public taxi, we stop briefly in Kabalagala, a popular hangout for nightlife. Passengers get on and off. An elderly woman dressed in a flowery brown and yellow gomesi enters carrying two large roosters in her arms. She sits next to me, and I suppress the urge to take a picture. Normally, I wouldn’t be finding the scene comical had I not momentarily transposed it onto an RTD bus from Colorado Blvd, where I reside, to Denver University or downtown: the bus stops at Evans Avenue, and a woman with two cocks mounts. Or better still, I am the woman returning from shopping and boarding the bus with two roosters. Would the driver and passengers think, perhaps, that the roosters are my service or therapy animals rather than dinner?
Anyway, the roosters start crowing, and I look around for reactions. No one seems bothered. A lady in a purple suit in the row before us is applying makeup, her black high heels tapping the floor. She’s carrying a trendy but fake Gucci handbag; what’s supposed to be a gold chain looks rusted, and one G is nearly falling off. Two men on my right are on their smartphones. The one closest to me is looking at nudes, typing feverishly in the chat window, a broad grin on his face. The second guy is admiring a picture of two young boys in red jerseys posing with a soccer ball. Are they his boys or someone else’s? Maybe he’s their coach. His muscular and broad-chested body is bursting through the tight and sleeveless white jersey he’s wearing. His head almost touches the taxi’s roof. He could easily be six foot nine.
The woman with the roosters begins to doze, leaning into me occasionally. The taxi conductor shouts above Bebe Cool’s music playing on the radio that we should start paying. I don’t know the exact fare, so I give him a 2000-shilling note. He returns 700 shillings. While I’m putting the money in my bag, I see Murakami’s After the Quake. I become aware of something shaking, only to see the nudes guy with a hand on his crotch. The expression on his face makes me pull out the book and start reading.
Mildred Kiconco Barya is a North Carolina-based writer, educator, and poet of East African descent. She teaches and lectures globally, and is the author of four full-length poetry collections, most recently The Animals of My Earth School released by Terrapin Books, in 2023. Her prose, hybrids, and poems have appeared in Shenandoah, Joyland, The Cincinnati Review, Tin House, New England Review, and elsewhere. She’s now working on a collection of creative nonfiction, and her essay, ‘Being Here in This Body’, won the 2020 Linda Flowers Literary Award and was published in the North Carolina Literary Review. She serves on the boards of the African Writers Trust and Story Parlor, and she coordinates the Poetrio Reading events at Malaprop’s Independent Bookstore/Café. She blogs here: www.mildredbarya.com